Eddie Van Halen
Remembering the Life of a Golden Guitar God
by Christopher Long
The magic and mystique of Eddie Van Halen was captured completely in ONE classic photo. You know the shot – the poofy haired, svelte guitarist in his prime, live on stage – standing tall, leaned back, with mouth opened wide – roaring like a lion, while donning a sweat-soaked silk vest and form-fitting velvet pants (with knee pads, of course) – a fabulous scarf dangling from around his neck, AND that trademark pin-striped Strat, pointed straight to the sky. Magical, indeed – and oozing mystique.
He wasn’t the first the guitar hero. He wasn’t the last either. However, Eddie Van Halen was arguably the sharpest shooter to ever strap on a six-string. He possessed innovative, golden god ability, combined with poster boy likability and erupting with explosive energy. Simply put, Eddie Van Halen was cool – and everybody knew it.
The legend of Jimi Hendrix still loomed large. And an array of modern-day slingers dominated the global rock scene – gifted greats known throughout the world by their first names – Ritchie, Joe, Ted and Ace. But when the self-titled debut album from raucous So-Cal upstarts, Van Halen, dropped in early 1978, everything changed. And seemingly over night, only ONE guy remained in the room.
One of the band’s two namesakes, the brash 23-year-old guitarist “reinvented the wheel” with his signature-style tapping, monster-sized riffs, melodic sensibility and modified electronics. And in the process, he not only stirred an immediate, undeniable international sensation, he also inspired endless generations of future guitarists. Plus, he won the “girl next door” – marrying heartthrob actress, Valerie Bertinelli – a particularly impressive coup, especially in the eyes of his pimple-faced, musically-minded male minions.
In terms of the music he created – where do you begin? From the iconic car horn effect in the opening of “Running With The Devil” to the blood-pumping chug of “You Really Got Me” to the heart-stopping swell coming into the solo on “And the Cradle Will Rock” to the urgency of “Unchained” to the dizzying heights of “Hot for Teacher,” Eddie Van Halen was like no other musician before, or since. Then of course, there’s what’s considered by many as the most influential rock guitar track ever, the one-minute and 42-second masterpiece, “Eruption” – from the first Van Halen slab.
For legions of rock-crazed kids (like me), the anticipation of a new Van Halen record brought the excitement and promise of Christmas morning. And seeing Eddie Van Halen perform live was as close to a religious experience as you could get without actually being in the presence of Jesus – a statement that might sound extreme now, but in the day, it was a spot-on assessment.
Eddie Van Halen’s talent reached beyond the electric guitar. His acoustic work on such tracks as, “Spanish Fly” and “Little Guitars” was consistently massive. He also would explore keyboards on later Van Halen records, most notably, the 1983 multi platinum smash, 1984. Additionally, a case can be made for crediting his guitar work on the Michael Jackson mega hit, “Beat It,” as one of the key contributing factors in the blockbuster success of the Thriller album.
The Van Halen lineup would evolve over the years, along with popular music trends. Yet, Eddie Van Halen remained a vital voice on the international music scene – scoring ten consecutive platinum-selling albums over the course of two decades and recording a near-endless slew of some of rock’s most-loved, timeless tracks.
As a teen sitting in church one Sunday morning, many years ago, I heard the pastor encouraging parishioners from the pulpit to achieve greatness in life and to “leave something behind.” Eddie Van Halen accomplished both. His talent – immeasurable. His catalog of music – impeccable. And his legacy will live forever.